Over the last 40 years or so, a lazy mythology has built up around the evolution of stand-up comedy in the UK, says Jon Fentiman, organiser of the Fringe’s comedy nights
The lazy mythology goes something like this: up until the late 1970s, stand-up comedy was dominated by nasty, bigoted white men telling sexist, racist and homophobic jokes and was essentially a right-wing enterprise. Then, suddenly, in 1980, the revelation that was alternative comedy exploded onto the scene, pioneered by the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, who wrestled stand-up from the hands of these nasty comedians and comedy became an essentially left-wing progressive enterprise.
The reality, however, is far more nuanced. Without a doubt, casual racism, sexism and homophobia were woven into the fabric of many comedy routines before the advent of alternative comedy, but only a few comedians made outright bigotry the mainstay of their acts. After all, the 1970s were the heyday of comedy greats such as Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise.
It should also be recognised that whilst alternative comedy helped pioneer a different approach to stand-up, it wasn’t particularly left-wing politics that provided its original inspiration.
Rather than simply telling jokes – mostly written by other people – the new comedians began writing their own material and gave themselves license to talk about real-life experiences in amusing and entertaining ways. The vast majority of acts were hilariously anarchic, and they seemed to take inspiration from the energy and irreverence of the punk era and the spirit of the old music hall rather than leftist politics.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was tension and sometimes even animosity between the old-school and new comedians, with the latter often satirising the formulaic structure of the former’s routines. But gradually, over time, a more respectful relationship ensued, with many of the new comedy acts acknowledging the influences of and respect for their predecessors.
Now, despite alternative comedy becoming the mainstream, against the odds, some old-school comedians have survived the test of time. And these comedians can still have modern-day comedy club audiences in hysterics. Mick Miller, whose career stretches six decades (a regular on 1970’s TV show The Comedians), is one such comedian. Now in his seventies, Mick has adapted and honed his material, and with the emergence of TikTok and Instagram, his comedy genius is wooing a new generation and proving himself as the ultimate survivor of stand-up comedy.
If you want to see old-school, bigotry-free comedy for yourself, Mick Miller will be headlining Wanstead Fringe comedy night on 17 September. You won’t regret it!
For more information on Wanstead Fringe events, visit wnstd.com/fringe